Alt-med purveyors show their true colors

By Phil Plait | January 25, 2010 10:17 am

At some level, I understand the motivations of people who promote "alternative medicine". They may very well be altrustic, seeing what they perceive as a massive failing of so-called Western medicine, and feeling strongly that they know how to fix the situation, if only people would seek alternatives. I know that when I feel strongly enough about an issue, I feel morally obligated to speak up.

The problem is that for a lot of this so-called alternative medicine, there is no evidence it works, and in fact evidence it doesn’t work. Worse, a lot of its biggest purveyors actively try to denigrate real medicine, the stuff that, y’know, works, in an attempt to bolster their alt-med claims. And you have to be a little suspicious when they hawk their wares on their sites, too.

So I question the motivations of some of these people, including one Mike Adams, about whom I wrote a couple of days ago. When called out for what is apparently voter fraud for a Twitter Shorty Award, he threw an epic tantrum that displays a decided lack of grip on reality (assuming he honestly believes what he’s selling). After that fact-free diatribe he followed up with a rant about skeptics that’s so far off the mark that it’s hard to believe anyone could post something like that honestly. Steve Novella takes him down on that one.

And as if these word spasms from Adams weren’t enough, he posted a third article where he completely gets science wrong, claiming water and quantum mechanics are magic, and then a fourth about the Shorty Awards where he once again ramps up the paranoid conspiracy theories.

Sigh. The irony is that he makes my job easy since he’s self-debunking, but also makes it harder because so many people swallow what he says whole without even giving it a moment of critical thought.

Joe Mercola, the other "victim" professing to have the vapors over this Shorty Award nonsense, decided to jump into the fray as well. Instead of using facts — because why start now? — he thought it was a good idea to say that Rachael Dunlop is fat:

An arrogant group of science bloggers that have vilified me for the past few years have started a campaign to have an Australian shill to win a health award on Twitter. This overweight non-physician has arrogantly bashed nearly every alternative therapy and encourages reliance on drugs.

Rachael is a woman who has tirelessly fought quackery and the dangerous wares of many alt-med purveyors, and of course Adams and Mercola are squarely in her crosshairs. She has called out many an antivaxxer, and was a key player in the travesty involving Dana McCaffery (an infant who died of pertussis) and Meryl Dorey, an antivaxxer who claims no one dies from pertussis anymore.

So when faced with someone like Rachael who has years of experience and who wields science, evidence, and reality, Mercola decided to stick out his tongue and call her fat.

Wow, folks. There’s your alt-med hero.

And yes, I am engaging in an ad hominem, an attack directed at someone instead of their arguments. But it’s not always wrong to do so; in this case Steve Novella, Orac, Rachael, and many others, including me, have already shown that people like Mercola and Adams are full of it. But sometimes that’s not enough. I think it does a lot of good to see how vile these people can be, and something like this is not only warranted, but needed, especially when these alt-medders set themselves up to be victims, claiming to be sympathetic and only wanting to help. They don’t help; they hurt.

Happily, some of Mercola’s followers are starting to see through him.

Look. We’re not talking about goofy nonsense like ghost-hunting or UFOs here. We’re talking about people’s lives. Alt-medders like Adams and Mercola reject treatments that we know to work, that we know can cure illnesses, that we know can relieve pain and suffering on a massive scale, and that we know can save lives. That’s what you’re turning your back on when you listen to them.

And I still endorse Rachael for the Shorty Award in health. Keep fighting the good fight.

Comments (44)

  1. shawmutt

    Wow they banned my account, and my ip, for making reasoned arguments. Interesting.

  2. GW

    I am rather surprised by how “weird” some alt-meders can be. I was seeing an alt-med nutritionist several years ago for major digestive issues. He offered some very helpful dietary advice and TONS of pills that could only be purchased through his office.
    Desperate for relief I followed the new diet meticulously and took every bloody pill he “prescribed”, and I got better; but there’s no telling if it was just the diet or a combination of the diet and supplements.
    This is where it gets “weird” though – I liked to joke with the ladies behind the counter that I was there to pick up my drugs (as that’s what they were since they affect biochemistry). They’d snippily tell me they weren’t “drugs” but “supplements” (yeah whatever, just give me the damned over-priced pills).
    The best part was when after a year, my symptoms were completely cleared up and had been for a few months, I announced I felt I didn’t need to come anymore and that I’d make an appointment if things took a downward slide. Again the ladies just glared at me and said “Well, it must be nice to be so healthy.” WTF?! I thought the whole point was for me to get better and never see you people again?!
    Yeah, it was strange; yeah, I never went back there.

  3. bubba

    It is good that these things are pointed out but how do stories like this get out to the mainstream press? Phil, I know you know you’re preaching to the choir here.

  4. Dr. Novella had a blog much like this today as well. I guess it’s good that we are getting under their skin and making them defend themselves for their unsupported views.

    Advert Irony: Banner for an alternative cancer treatment doctor shows up. I encourage people to click the adverts for those in order to bleed some of their advertising dollars away.

  5. Pi-needles

    Look. We’re not talking about goofy nonsense like ghost-hunting or UFOs here. We’re talking about people’s lives. Alt-medders like Adams and Mercola reject treatments that we know to work, that we know can cure illnesses, that we know can relieve pain and suffering on a massive scale, and that we know can save lives. That’s what you’re turning your back on when you listen to them.

    Given how hard so many people, doctors, scientists, nurses and patients have worked, sweated, endured, suffered and bled in order for us to know how to do all the effective life-saving modern medicine we have in this day & age, I find something immensely depressing about the fact that such anti-scientific medicine people still exist and can still draw so many guillible followers to their snake-oil quackery.

    I feel genuinely tired and miserable that Phil has to keep on posting things like this on this tedious – but necessary for public health – debunking topic. :-(

  6. mixonph

    Does anyone know what religions do not allow people to be vaccinated?

  7. Petrolonfire

    @ 3. bubba Says:

    It is good that these things are pointed out but how do stories like this get out to the mainstream press? Phil, I know you know you’re preaching to the choir here.

    Choir? Here? I can’t sing to save my life! ;-)

    As for these stories getting out into the mainstream press – sadly, they usually don’t. :-(

    @ 6 Mixonph. :

    The Jehovah’s Witnesses, I think, are one example along with them refusing life saving blood transfusions. The Amish religion – whatever their official title is – too I beleive. Mormons too maybe? Scientologists have a thing against pyschiatry probably because their founder, the very loopy & quite probably compulsive liar, L. Ron Hubbard was, I’d say based on reading one biography on him*, pretty much round the twist & likely fearful of being exposed or cured by it. From vague media hearings think they also refuse to allow women to cry out in childbirth or was that just Tom Cruise? Its a long, sad list and those are the first examples that come to my mind.

    * Titled Bare Faced Messiah, forgotten the author, great book, strange & seemingly deranged man who used to be an SF athor but was making up tales about himself long before that and who, it seemed, may have deliberately founded the religion as a tax dodge but then might have ended up believing in his own stories.

  8. Lawrence

    The Amish do vaccinate – that they don’t is a well-heeled urban myth.

    I just read the “What Skeptics Really Believe” article – that guy is frakin nuts!!!

  9. Michelle R

    …THAT’S fat?! Jeesh, people have sure gotten picky over the years. She’s not even chubby.

    And really, when that’s your only argument against someone… That means you’ve hit rock bottom.

    Go Rachel!

  10. RickK

    @1 shawmutt, it’s no use commenting on NaturalNews. Mike Adams filters out negative comments. He even bans respectful, sincere questions if they sound like they’re doubting the magic of his nostrums.

    You can always tell a site that promoting nonsense – they either ban negative comments, like Mike does, or they don’t allow comments at all, like the Discovery Institute.

    But there is a reason Mike allows any comments at all – he NEEDS the testimonials. After all, unlike Pharyngula, Bad Astronomy, Neurologica and Respectful Insolence, Mike Adams’s NaturalNews is SELLING products. Mike makes his living off the cherry-picked comments of people fooled by his quackery.

    Mike Adams CAN’T allow people to openly disagree with him – it will hurt his sales!

    So instead of standing behind his products and facing critics head on, he bans any and all critics from his site. Mike Adams has no confidence in his products, or he is a coward, or both.

  11. ND

    Is there a dedicated site that debunks Mercola?

  12. Laura

    @Petrolonfire: Mormons allow vaccination and all modern medicine. In fact, it’s kind of an informal sin to not use the brains God gave you in Mormonism – thus science *should* be supported. Sadly, many MANY Mormons fall victim to lack of critical thinking (just like many folks in any other religion). But there’s nothing in the religion itself that argues against modern medicine. So you can strike them off your list. Any Mormons who fail to vaccinate do so for reasons unrelated to their religion.

  13. Ad Hominid

    Many years ago, when I first started to get interested in skepticism, the most frequent question I was asked was “What harm does it do if people believe in stuff like UFOs, bigfoot, (etc.)?

    The harm, of course, lay in the commercially profitable promotion of sloppy thinking and in the familiar phenomenon known as “assumption of the consequent.” The latter is the process by which acceptance of one irrational belief makes it much easier to accept others. For example (one I have actually heard) “If they can fake the Moon landings, they can also kidnap law-abiding citizens in the middle of the night and send them away to UN gulags.”

    Today, with alt-med instigated epidemics and the incredible scandal of the bomb-finding Iraqi dowsing machine, there is no doubt of the harm. We have real deaths (possibly thousands in the case of the dowsing machine) resulting from such beliefs.

  14. Ad Hominid, I take it you are familiar with What’s The Harm? http://whatstheharm.net

  15. Dr. Dunlop is not even remotely fat o_O I’d hate to see what Mercola’s description of ‘skinny’ is…

  16. ccpetersen

    Testimonial 1: Some years ago I was diagnosed with a serious health issue that eventually required surgery. It was a well-researched malady that, if left untreated, would have meant that I’d be dead by now. I happened to mention this to an acquaintance who was into alt-med therapies, and she coldly informed me that my doctors were itching to do surgery because they like to experiment on women (first I’d heard of that) and that my doctors wouldn’t check out any alternative therapies. Intrigued, I asked her about some of the alternative therapies she thought I should look into. She (this person is NOT a doctor or a health practioner, by the way) listed out things like herbal waters, burning sage bundles, oxygen therapy, astrological readings, and DMSO. All nonsense. In point of fact, my doctors (at a large teaching hospital known for embracing the idea of SOME alternative therapies like acupuncture), had done several differential diagnoses and all came back with the same course of treatment: surgery. We spent a long time learning about all the medical alternatives and together I and my doctors came to the right conclusion about what to do.

    I had the surgery and am doing fine today. No thanks to the believers in the sacred waters, sage bundles, astrology, and DMSO. And no thanks to an acquaintance who felt it was her business to practice medicine without a license (or without, apparently, even any alt-med training).

    Testimonial 2: There are people out there pushing alternative medicine to women, people who claim that massive doses of female hormones will stop the aging process, etc. etc. I looked into this and found absolutely NO clinical evidence that this would actually help. In some cases, it actually seemed to make women sicker and when they complained, they were told that they weren’t following the dosage instructions and that any disease they retained was their own damned fault. I’ve rarely heard of a trained MD making this kind of pronouncement, but the “pushers” of these high-dosage hormone treatments felt perfectly fine treating their non-successful patients like scum. How much is high dosage? I’m talking THOUSANDS of times the amount of hormone that a normal young woman would have — being given to women of menopausal age. When I questioned one practitioner of it about the proved efficacy of the method, the person — instead of handing out clinical studies and actual DATA on how this worked — claimed to be persecuted by big pharma and doctors; claimed that any dissent or questions about how well the method worked would be met by lawsuits designed to protect the “secrecy of the method.”

    This is, folks, NOT how pharma works, nor is it how medicine works — nor even how science works. I realize that medical research is made more difficult by the fact that often no two people will react to treatments in quite the same way — and that very uncertainty in reaction is what these practitioners like Mercola, et al, use for their own purposes. Yet, there is far more OPEN documentation in medical research that shows us what works, what doesn’t, etc. I wish we could see the same kind of openness in the alt-med community. Instead, when things don’t work, these “practitioners” seem to blame the patient, Big Pharma, Big Med, Big Anything, in an effort to prove that their quackery works. When they point the finger of blame at everybody else, they’re pointing three fingers back at themselves.

    While I am quite cognizant of the mind-body connection in healing (as are many doctors), I’m not sufficiently patient enough with people who exploit it with fuzzy “medicine” and fantastic claims that, when questioned, turn out to be utter BS. And, when you call them on the BS, instead of taking their lumps and refining their medicines, some of these “practitioners” turn ugly and vile. That is SO not what medicine is about — and if alt-medders claim to be treating body AND mind, how helpful is it to insult and bitch at anyone (especially patients) who have honest questions about the methods? Isn’t that an insult to the mind?

    Unbelievable. But then again, nobody said that some of these “practitioners” were logical.

  17. DaveS

    Christian Science discourages vaccination among its followers, and many states have mandatory vaccination waivers for Christian Science children. I was raised in the religion, and growing up I took advantage of the herd immunity caused by all the other smart parents that had their kids immunized. I thank all of them for that. I’d hate to be a kid in that situation nowadays.

    BTW, of course, my daughter has ALL her vaccines, right on schedule.

  18. PJE

    @ #8 Lawrence “I just read the “What Skeptics Really Believe” article – that guy is frakin nuts!!!”

    It’s interesting to see that Skeptics think that pregnancy is a disease! That was freakin’ hilarious!

    Pete

  19. Peptron

    @ #18 PJE
    Pregnancy is a sexually transmitted disease. My sister catched it and ended up with some kind of human shaped parasite inside of her, much like in the movie Alien. AND THIS IS WHAT SKEPTICS REALLY BELIEVE!!!

  20. Quote of the day:

    Do I think water is magical? You bet I do!
    -Mike Adams

  21. PJE

    Uggh…I just read the other two articles written by him (labelled third and fourth by Phil)…I feel…dirty. I also feel the need to run a virus scan on my computer :)

    Pete

  22. Ron

    If you ever have the opportunity (and the stomach for it) you may want to attend a local “Healing Arts Fair.” They will push ANYTHING that calims to be an alternative method of healing. One example is a device that the sellers claim will treat arthrits, increase blood flow, cure insomnia and align your chakras with magnetism. The device itself consisted of two hardware store magnets attached to a tennis racquet that sold for $150.00.
    The instructions said to wave it over your body three time daily for maximum effect.
    Something else I keep hearing that may not be new for these quacks is that they preach that the germ theory of disease has been proved totally wrong. I guess if one swallows that bs it becomes eaiser to sell the useless products they offer.
    In addition to the usual health related literature about the “evils of western medicine” and “big pharm.” Many of them push literature about other paranoid conspiracy theories. I saw stuff about the moon landing hoax, intelligent design and a host of others. Much of it with a right wing bent. I would guess that pushing ID and NASA conspiracies fits well into the general anti science state of mind.

  23. Mercola is a profiteering twit who makes his living by playing with people’s health under the protection of the Quack Miranda. Instead of worrying about an award he class meaningless, he should be in a courtroom facing charges of impersonating a doctor.

  24. Ron

    It is nice that we can call Miranda and Mercola quacks and charlatans at will and do so with total impunity.

  25. John Paradox

    21. PJE Says:

    Uggh…I just read the other two articles written by him (labelled third and fourth by Phil)…I feel…dirty. I also feel the need to run a virus scan on my computer

    What!? You don’t have a homeopathic virus scanner!?!?!?

    ;)

    J/P=?

  26. dcsohl

    Talking about “what skeptics believe” … is kind of missing the point.

  27. rob

    in that third article he writes that Feynman wasn’t a skeptic.

    rotfl

  28. Ron @#24: Truth is an absolute defense.

  29. calebthechemist

    Damn it Phil. I had a ton of work to do this afternoon and instead I have spent it reading Mike Adams quackery!

  30. As a former magical-thinker who often lashed out at Teh Evil Snowman Melters™ for scaring me with their mean, cold sciencey ideas, I can tell you the Worried Well™ are usually not stupid, they’re just scared. They’re scared because they know that science is correct (and self-correcting). They just plug their ears, shut their eyes and go “La la la, I’ll never die, La la la, I’ll never die, Science is mean, I won’t look, Magic is real, I am special, La la la I’ll never die”. Until they deal with their fear of reality, there’s pretty much no reaching them.

  31. Beryl

    @ 6 Mixonph:
    Christian science is the only large group I’m aware of in the US that rejects standard medical care (including vaccination). Jehovah’s Witnesses present a dilemma to to medicine precisely because they reject ONLY blood transfusions, while accepting other medical interventions. Pentecostal types may individually reject standard medical care on the basis that miraculous healing is one of the gifts of the spirit associated with (I think) baptism of the Holy Spirit. Pentecostal types aren’t big on hierarchy and dogma, so this isn’t going to be uniform throughout the denomination. Their are various smaller groups that reject modern medicine. A group called Unleavened Bread Ministries was what lead Dale and Leilani Neumann to rely on faith healing to treat their daughter’s diabetes (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/21/us/21faith.html). There are other such small groups.

  32. molybdenumfist

    What dcsohl said @26
    Mike Adams… someone get that guy a dictionary.

  33. @Uncle Stabby,

    I guess our experiences differ. I was never a magical thinker, but I did belong to an Ultra Orthodox temple for a time. (My parents were members. I was living with my parents. Therefore, I went there so I didn’t need to pay dues.) The rabbi would give every third speech about how science knew nothing and the answers to everything were in the Torah. I bit my tongue because I knew arguing with him in the middle of his speech would be plain rude. Besides, there was zero chance I’d convince him of anything.

    Still, it allowed me a chance to see just what motivated him to distrust science so. I can sum it up in one word: Change. Science changes. What we think is true today, winds up not being true tomorrow. New evidence comes in that makes us rethink our theories and modify them. Occasionally, we might even toss them out for brand new ones.

    Everyone here recognizes that as science’s strength. However, to my parents’ rabbi, this was scary. His “truth” would be constantly shifting when all he craved was a constant set of rules. A simple “do A, B, and C, but never D.”

    The Torah, meanwhile, was constant. It was never added to. The most that would happen would be that someone might come up with an interesting interpretation of it. However, rabbis of a few centuries back were held to be as close to saints as Judaism has. So you’d have to come up with one mighty good interpretation to even make a dent against the old interpretations.

    This meant that Judaism (at least as practiced by this rabbi) was unchanging. The rules for today were the rules for yesterday were the rules for three weeks ago and will be the rules for the next decade. He could rest easy knowing that they wouldn’t be altered.

    So when he wanted a constant, unchanging set of rules for how the world works, he didn’t turn to science. He turned to religion. To him, change was scary and he valued the stagnation. Science’s strength was actually seen as a weakness by him.

    NOTE: This isn’t a comment against all Judaism or religion. The term “Orthodox Judaism” doesn’t refer to one cohesive group, but to a bunch of groups of varying sizes each with their own unique set of beliefs. It is completely possible to meet an Orthodox Jew who will acknowledge science as correct and take Torah lines as metaphorical/allegorical instead of literal.

  34. Lawrence

    Once again, the WOO is strong with this one.

  35. ND

    In Steven Novella’s blog post I found the following paragraph to be worth quoting here because it’s a very good summary of what’s going on. The bolding of the sentence below is by me.

    “With that as background, let’s move on to the meat of this post – Adams absurd rant against “skeptics.” While Adams likely thinks he has made a stinging attack against his detractors, he has only revealed his own intellectual shortcomings. His post is the equivalent of dropping a crudely fashioned incendiary device onto a strawman factory of his own making. One of the most useful measures of one’s intellectual honesty and rigor is the manner in which they portray the positions of their critics and ideological opponents. With that in mind – take a look at Adams characterization of the skeptical position.”

  36. ND

    TechyDad,

    Another way of putting it has to do with how one deals and feels comfortable with uncertainty. Science is about taking on uncertainty head on and quantifying it. Scientists have to deal with it in their research, accept it and feel comfortable with it.

    Also, being a scientist means accepting that some of the most fundamental questions in your field or other fields may not be answered in your lifetime. Life beyond earth? Sagan isn’t around to see such a thing. Will we? Maybe the discovery of bacteria elsewhere in the solar system. ETI beyond our solar system? No on’e holding their breath.

  37. dave

    @ 25. John Paradox,

    Alt-med virus scanner: Take a wand with a powerful magnet on the end. Wave it over your hard drive several times. The magnetization energies will detoxify your files naturally, without harmful unnatural algorithms. If all of your files disappear and your hard drive is unreadable, it is most likely the result of impurities in your RAM. We’re running a special on organic, silicon-free RAM that will fix all your problems; don’t think just pay me.

  38. TheSkepticCanuck

    Personally, I think Dr. Rachie looks great! Dr. Rachie wields science, evidence, and reality like an experienced Jedi wields a light sabre, quickly cutting through the alt-med quackery. Mercola and Adams must think only people who purchase their overpriced sugar pills look good. I feel only pity and sadness for them.

  39. Petrolonfire

    @8. Lawrence Says:

    The Amish do vaccinate – that they don’t is a well-heeled urban myth.

    Really? I woulda thought vaccines would be too “modern technology” for them. Okay then.

    @ 12. Laura Says:

    @Petrolonfire: Mormons allow vaccination and all modern medicine. In fact, it’s kind of an informal sin to not use the brains God gave you in Mormonism – thus science *should* be supported. Sadly, many MANY Mormons fall victim to lack of critical thinking (just like many folks in any other religion). But there’s nothing in the religion itself that argues against modern medicine. So you can strike them off your list. Any Mormons who fail to vaccinate do so for reasons unrelated to their religion.

    Alright then too . Not my impression before for some reason but I’ll take your word for it – that or do some research later!

    (I know, I know, I should’ve done that research *before* I typed that first post shouldn’t I? I was going from memory and seems I remembered wrong. My bad.)

    @ 31. Beryl Says:

    @ 6 Mixonph: Christian science is the only large group I’m aware of in the US that rejects standard medical care (including vaccination).

    Thanks – that’s not what I used to think but I’m kinda relieved to be wrong on this one. ;-)

  40. Dave

    I think as far as science and religion go most religouse folk could care less. And many do support science.

    In the end they realize that they are going to die, and would rather live a life happily believing that they go on after they die. So when anything that comes out to disprove their beliefs they ignor it, for the most part. Plus, does it seriously matter? No, religion or not, most of humnities problems stem from humanity anyways. We’d fight and quarrel without religion. Same goes for trying to ban guns.

    So, take it easy on the religouse folk who like to live thinking they’re lives aren’t poinless. As of now, science doesn’t offer any form of immortality. It only offers a plain, sorrowful end to all our lives.

    It’s also true that science disproves itself everyday. So brace yourselves, everything you know could be wrong. Though I’d personally like to doubt that myself…

    In the end I think it’s better that science and religion get along, and stop trying to disprove one another. There’s no point fighting a seemingly endless battle.

    Racheal FTW

  41. Katharine

    Way to not only totally miss the point but also ignore facts, Dave.

  42. Scott

    A comment on your use of ad hominem (a pet peeve of mine). “Ad hominem” is not synonymous with “insult”.

    Yes, “ad hominem” in Latin, literally means, “to the man” but consider that this is just short for “argumentum ad hominem”: “argument to/agaisnt the man”. People often forget the “argument” part and think that simple insults constitute logical fallacies.

    Argumentum ad hominem is an argument that employs attacks on or references to character traits of the opponent. It is fallacious when said attacks and references are irrelevant to the topic at hand.

    Example:

    Person A: I’m skinny.
    Person B: No, you’re fat, ergo you’re wrong.

    This is a non-fallacious use of the ad hominem.

    Person A: [Some claim unrelated to their girth]
    Person B: No, you’re fat, ergo you’re wrong.

    This is a fallacious use of the ad hominem.

    In the case here, and in many cases all over the internet, we aren’t even talking about uses of ad hominem. Insulting words, alone or interspersed within arguments, are not ad hominems!

    Simply issuing an insult does not make it an ad hominem, and not all ad hominems are fallacious!

    It’s only an ad hominem when the insult *IS THE ARGUMENT*, and is only fallacious when it isn’t relevant to the issue being discussed.

    I love your work, but if we are going to strive for better scientific awareness, I think we should also strive for better logical awareness too.

    My $0.02.

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